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Apr 11, 2004

Consequences: Intended and Unintended

There is a very good article, written by James Traub, with accompanying decorative illustrations by Peter Max, in today's NY Times. Traub's"Making Sense of the Mission" raises some very important questions—even if I don't agree with many of his answers—about the nature and complexity of nation-building in Iraq. Pointing to the failures of nation-building in such places as Haiti, Traub argues that the task is not impossible, but it"is very hard, and ... it demands a great deal of both patience and modesty—qualities that do not come naturally to American policymakers or, for that matter, to Americans."

It is ironic, of course, that"[d]uring the 2000 Presidential debates, George W. Bush mocked the idea of nation-building as a dangerous Democratic folly. The function of the American military, he often repeated, was 'to fight and win wars.' Bush gave the impression that nation-building was something Bill Clinton and his team of woolly-headed multilateralists had dreamed up. But the truth is that while the term is new, the endeavor is not ..."

Traub discusses a bit of the history of nation-building. He writes that Maj. Gen. William Nash, who first commanded the American division in Bosnia, had discovered that he couldn't separate peacekeeping from nation-building."'The first rule of nation-building is that everything is related to everything,' Nash said, 'and it's all political.' Everything, that is, impinges on somebody's power, and in order to establish stable democratic institutions you have to deal with, and often confront, the political structures that provoked the conflict in the first place."

Ah, yes, that ol' dialectical insight, that in any given context,everything is related to everything. The problem is, of course, that we don't exactly know how things relate in any social order, and, in fact, much of what constitutes social relations is tacit and habitual, having never been formally articulated or even understood by the social actors themselves. A fundamental epistemological weakness of central planning, as F. A. Hayek has shown, is that planners cannot grasp the tacit dimension, which relates to knowledge possessed by individual actors who pursue their own purposes while situated in a particular time and place.

The same principle is just as relevant when considering foreign intervention into a country in which the locals have their own customs and habits. Unintended consequences, which are a normal part of what it means to live in society, are a particularly insidious effect of such intervention. (What we're seeing in Iraq, of course, was not necessarily intended, but many of us have been predicting the chaos for over a year."Unintended" does not mean"unpredictable".)

There is no greater or more forceful form of political intervention than military action. Indeed,"war," observed the 19th century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz,"is the continuation of politics by other means." And like all forms of political intervention, it too generates unintended consequences. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, those who remain to keep the peace are now arguing that there is a need for"about 20 soldiers per 1,000 inhabitants to stabilize an unsettled population.'' This could translate, in Iraq,"to almost half a million troops. And yet," says Traub,"this overwhelming military force must be coupled with a nuanced awareness of local conditions. 'These places tend to be chaotic, dynamic,' said Frederick Barton, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a veteran of many peacekeeping operations. 'Our own institutions tend to be static. You have to head things in the right direction rather than controlling them.' One cannot easily find a peacekeeping mission that exemplifies this peculiar mix of characteristics."

While candidate Bush argued that"nation-building represented the triumph of the nanny state on an international scale," it's pretty clear that the neocon nannies have exerted a strong influence on the stated policy-making goals of his administration, which now aims to foster"political transformation, first in Iraq, then throughout the Middle East. This is, of course, a call to the most ambitious kind of nation-building." It is a call, in other words, to a formal knowledge of conditions of a complex foreign society that central planners of whatever sort will never fully possess.

And so let's not be too surprised by the unintended ripple effects that are now on display in the wake of such folly.

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